Why own a $620,000 Richard Mille watch if you can’t show it off? If such was the reasoning of Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, it failed him. After he was photographed wearing the luxury timepiece at his extravagant August 2015 wedding, anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny posted the photo on his website, which has thousands of Russian viewers daily, and pointed out that the price of the watch was four times Peskov’s annual government salary.
Navalny followed up with an exposé that purportedly showed Peskov honeymooning with his new bride, Olympic figure skater Tatiana Navka, on a yacht that leases for 350,000 euros (about $400,000) per week and later published photographs of Peskov’s luxury $7.1 million home in an elite Moscow suburb. (Peskov has referred to Navalny as a “sick narcissist with an inflated ego.”)
Now Peskov is again in hot water, this time because of his entanglement with the Robert Mueller probe and a recent plea agreement with Mueller by President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen. In late August 2017, Cohen sent a letter to Senate and House intelligence committees stating that in January 2016 he had sent an email to Peskov inquiring about permissions for the building of a Trump tower in Moscow (the so-called Moscow project), but that he did not recall receiving an answer and had no further contact with the press secretary or other Russian officials about the matter. His further testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed what he said in the letter.
After reports of Cohen's statement reached the media a few days later, Peskov, who had insisted in a January 2017 NBC interview that "Trump never had any business here. I have never heard of any business he had here," was asked to respond. He confirmed to CNN that he received the email:
"This email said that a certain Russian company together with certain individuals is pursuing the goal of building a skyscraper in the 'Moscow City' district, but things aren't going well and they asked for help with some advice on moving this project forward. But, since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics—this is not our work—we left it unanswered."
It turns out that both Cohen and Peskov were lying—Peskov for the second time. Cohen's plea agreement revealed that he sent two emails to Peskov's office, on Jan. 14 and 16, 2016, asking for help in the Moscow Project, and that on Jan. 20, Peskov's female assistant emailed him back, saying she had been trying to reach him and requesting that he call her. The two then had a 20-minute telephone conversation, and Peskov's assistant promised help in moving the project forward.
That was not all. Cohen not only discussed the Moscow Project with Trump and his family during the next six months but Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman who was working with Cohen on the project, reported to him in May 2016 that Peskov had invited Cohen to be his guest at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2016. There, he said, Peskov would "possibly introduce" Cohen to the Russian president or the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.
Last Friday Peskov met with reporters in Moscow for some damage control. He confirmed that he received two emails from Cohen and read selected excerpts from them aloud, explaining lamely that Cohen contacted him because his email address is listed publicly and that every week they receive dozens of appeals from "those who want to build something." Peskov went on to say that his office contacted Cohen by telephone and “we told them that Presidential Administration doesn’t build houses, and if they want to invest in Russia that we will be happy to see them at St Petersburg Economic Forum."
Why would Peskov have lied about the communications with Cohen earlier? Was it possibly because Peskov had been named in the explosive, uncorroborated Steele dossier as the man in charge of the Kremlin's compromising materials on Hillary Clinton, compiled by Russia's intelligence service?
The dossier also reported that in August 2016 Peskov was "scared shitless" that he would lose his job as a result of fallout from revelations about Russia's DNC hacking operation. (In fact, it was Peskov's rival, Presidential Administration Chief Sergei Ivanov, who ended up getting sacked.) And the dossier cited a Kremlin insider as reporting in October 2016 that "Cohen now was heavily engaged in a cover up [sic] and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of TRUMP's relationship with Russia being exposed."
Peskov, who called the dossier "pulp fiction" in his NBC interview, may seem like an unlikely figure to be involved in any of the Trump stuff. His main job, after all, is to manage the Kremlin's public image, not to conduct secret negotiations with representatives of Western politicians.
Angus Roxburgh, a British journalist who served as a public relations consultant to the Kremlin from 2006 to 2009 and worked closely with Peskov, does not rule out what the dossier says about Peskov, but finds it highly doubtful. He told me by telephone this week: "It is unlikely that Peskov would be in charge [of kompromat on Clinton]. Why would this not be under the control of the intelligence services?"
In fact, according to an article in the reputable New Times magazine, Peskov might well have worked for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (KGB, then SVR) before he joined the Kremlin's press office in 2000. Peskov's career followed closely that of his father Sergei Peskov, who studied at Moscow's Lomonosov Institute of Asia and Africa, known as a feeder school for the KGB, before serving as a diplomat in Palestine, Pakistan and Oman. Fluent in Arabic, Sergei worked first in the Committee of Solidarity with Asian and African countries, then in the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Both organizations, responsible for the propaganda of communism in Third World countries, served as covers for the KGB.
Dmitry Peskov, born in 1967, also studied at the Lomonosov Institute, specializing in the Turkish language before embarking at age 22 on a career as a diplomat in Ankara, where he rose to become first secretary in the late 1990s. New Times speculates that a two-year stint back in Moscow, from 1994 to 96, might actually have represented Peskov's studies at the Foreign Intelligence Academy (formerly the Andropov Red Banner Institute), where Putin trained in the early 1980s before serving as a KGB officer in East Germany. As New Times pointed out, Peskov's predecessor as head of the president's press office, Aleksei Gromov, who played a large part in Peskov's Kremlin appointment, was also a former KGB officer.
Peskov told New Times he was "never" recruited by the KGB, but a KGB/SVR background might explain why Peskov rose so quickly in the Kremlin hierarchy, becoming a deputy chief of the presidential administration, and thus a member of Putin's powerful executive staff, by 2012. As Roxburgh said to me: "Putin trusts those guys [from the intelligence services] more than anyone else."
Peskov, who speaks excellent English, comes across as urbane and open to Western ideas. But, according to Roxburgh, "he is a clone of Putin. He even thinks and expresses himself like Putin." This observation is illustrated by Peskov's now infamous comment about Russians who protested against the Kremlin on Bolotnaya Square in May 2012: “Protesters who hurt riot police should have their livers smeared on the asphalt.”
Navalny made a reference to this comment in his exposé about Peskov's watch: "Of course, they are protesting against corruption, that is, against the right of men like Peskov to take millions in bribes and buy watches that are more suitable for a billionaire than for an official living at the expense of the people… For his beautiful Richard Mille watch Dmitry Peskov will smear your liver, and he won't let you go to the polls and he'll lie on television as much as he needs to." Peskov told New Times he was misquoted. He only said some of the protesters attacking police should have their livers smeared on the pavement.
As part of Cohen's plea agreement, Cohen will "continue to respond and provide truthful information regarding any and all matters" that the Mueller investigation deems relevant. So we could learn more about Peskov's interactions with the Trump team during the 2016 election.
In a November 2015 email to Cohen, Felix Sater wrote: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” If Peskov actually was a key figure on that team, he would have seen Trump and his people, who are so motivated by money, as kindred spirits.
Roxburgh remembers being really surprised when he saw Peskov arrive for one of their first meetings—at the plush Moscow restaurant Accenti, where Peskov had reserved a private room-- in a hugely expensive Toyota Prado (with upscale models in the $80,000 range). Now, according to the 2017 official government report on the property of Kremlin officials, Peskov and his wife own three Mercedes, a Lexus RX350, a Yamaha landcruiser. a Can-Am ATV, and umpteen apartments and houses. Wristwatches are not mentioned.